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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

A Love Supreme: On Racial Profiling in Jazz

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

It was my junior year of college, and the first time I ever studied true jazz. I had been invited to join the jazz combo class as a vocalist, by my boyfriend, Walter. He was first chair of the saxophone section in the big band, so his recommendation was taken seriously. I'm sure all Walt wanted was to have his girlfriend be able to attend all the outings at no extra cost. But as a result, I found myself propelled head first into the jazz studies program. Talk about going from zero to 60mph: suddenly I landed a spot in jazz harmony class, in vocal jazz, I became leader of the Wednesday Combo, and I was next in line to be the vocalist for the big band. Weekly, I had to memorize new charts, along with completing listening assignments where I raided the library's CD collection, picked out an album, and had to write a review.

I distinctly remember selecting Miles Davis's Boplicity, way too early in my jazz studies to appreciate it. In my review I accused it of being "difficult to relate to", "egotistical", and "elitist", and my professor tore that paper to shreds (figuratively, of course -- he was a very fair and patient mentor). But I hadn't fallen in love with the art form yet. I didn't know what to listen for: when he chose to follow the rules of theory, or when he chose to bend them away from convention. How was he phrasing his solos to express emotion, or highlighting the intricacies of the chord changes, or showcasing the genius of the pianist's voicings? I was too green -- it all went over my head.

One week, there was a live performance of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, in its entirety. We managed to get tickets, as the saxophone professor's husband was playing tenor at that gig. If we chose, we could write a review for class credit, so Walt and I decided to attend. I didn't really know who Coltrane was yet, and I certainly had never heard of the piece; but Walt was intimately familiar, and extremely enthusiastic about it.

The quartet consisted of four men, all jazz professors, and all virtuosos in their own right. They thanked the audience for attending, introduced each other, played a warm-up tune for their benefit as well as the audience's -- then Trane's four exalted movements began.

An intensity broke out over the stage. The performers began to cry as they played. Their shoulders shook with sobs, their eyes stared pleadingly up at the ceiling -- and all this while they kept playing. The drummer wiped the tears from his cheeks, and the saxophonist held his face in his hands while he rested during the pianist's solo. What sort of performance was this? Then suddenly they started singing? I opened my program, searching for an explanation.

There was a photocopy of Coltrane's handwriting, of what I was later to learn was the Love Supreme Poem, thus inspiring the Psalm movement. The first few lines read:

"I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord.

It all has to do with it.

Thank You God."

I don't do well with Christian propaganda. I'm well aware that it has more to do with my past and is not the norm for most people; but I can think of nothing that has betrayed me more impactfully and painfully than the church. As a child you aren't so aware of the brainwashing, where you hear that just because you were born female, you assume a submissive role here on Earth; but when the rector splits apart your social foundation in high school, scattering your dearest friends, by firing a woman because she had a PhD and he didn't believe that was her place -- that leaves you with a heartache and disgust you always remember. That institution which promised to love me unconditionally and shelter me in times of need? Forget it -- you showed me your true colors.

I clenched defensively. Walt knew how I felt about such things, yet here he was, dragging me along, not even giving me a word of warning that that's what the subject matter would be. I sat tensely through the rest of the performance, unable to listen, unable to enjoy, watching these four virtuosos having profound religious experiences, while I was praying for their deliverance from such brainwashing.

When it was over, the auditorium was instantly on its feet in a standing ovation. The quartet was completely exhausted. Walt was glowing with inspiration to hit the practice room, and he turned to me and said, "What'd you think!?!"

"I didn't like that it was Christian."

"WHAT? That's it? That's all you have to say!?"

"I don't like it when people try to tell me what my relationship should be with God! OK, so maybe you have a work that was divinely inspired, but you don't need to go shouting about it, to make people agree with you! I am sick of people trying to convert me!"

"He wasn't trying to convert you, Jess. He was only expressing his gratitude! He believed it was only by divine intervention that he was able to recover from his heroine addiction and get his life back, and that's what inspired the piece!"

"Still, you don't need to tell me what God is, and you don't need to tell me how to have a relationship with him."

We walked out in tense silence, each wallowing in our thoughts. Why must people always try to give me religion? I just want to live my life in peace, I was thinking. "She will never understand jazz..." I suspect was going through his mind.

In the lobby, there hung a large poster over a table: a make-shift alter serving tribute to John Coltrane. I was stunned by what I saw.

I didn't know John Coltrane was black.

My entire perspective shifted. No longer did I feel suspicious about him having motives for converting new recruits for the church -- he expressed his love of God because he honestly felt gratitude for God, and he couldn't contain his joy. This piece was his gift to the world that resulted from such gratitude. Cultures with African roots seem to be more gracefully able to express emotion like that. It wasn't a marketing ploy. This entire time, I had just assumed he was white. I'm white (in case you can't tell), and grew up in churches that were always all white, where emotions were always suppressed. Nothing was ever done for the parishioners without someone asking for your money. Christian Contemporary music is never made without people conniving to make a multimillion dollar profit. And people in my churches never strayed from the safety of the beaten path for any reason -- and if they did, they were no longer welcome in that church. So much for the actual teachings of Christ -- they'll just make billions off people's spiritual vulnerability and leave the sinners in the dust.

Suddenly, I wanted to rewatch the performance. I wanted to learn about Coltrane's journey and feel his transformations -- the darkness within him that brought him into the terrifying recesses of addiction, then experience the moment the light became present in his life. I wanted to hear how his musical genius illustrates the steps of his healing, and to feel the triumph and thankfulness that came flooding in when he finally was clean. I wanted to feel the love of God as he felt it.

I had completely missed out on a profound musical perspicacity, all because I had incorrectly profiled the composer based on my assumptions of his ethnicity. Walt listened, astounded, to my sudden paradigm shift in the car on the way home. It made for one of the most fascinating conversations we ever had.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Craig Whittaker. To hear more of his work, please click here.

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